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As clean as we want to be

July 11, 2006

'CLEAN MONEY," LIKE SO MANY political reforms, is appealing in the abstract but can be troublesome in the particulars. In theory, this version of campaign finance reform relieves office-seekers of the need to go hat in hand to (take your pick) developers, labor unions, tobacco companies or other interests to beg for the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to run a campaign. No more endless evenings on the phone asking for money and being pressured to offer something in return. Instead, there is public funding of campaigns. To the public -- again, in the abstract -- this offers candidates unbought by professional fundraisers, lobbyists or their clients, untied to would-be government contractors.

They love clean-money campaigning in Arizona and in Maine, where such programs were adopted and are weathering early challenges. In California, the Los Angeles City Council is grappling with a public-financing measure -- still far from final form -- that could reach the ballot as early as March. In November, voters statewide will consider Proposition 89, a public-financing initiative placed on the ballot by the California Nurses Assn.

Not coincidentally, positions on the subject locally have crystallized. In the City Council, some members who previously were all for "clean money" have discovered that they don't like anything about it, including the name, because it implies that traditional campaign financing is dirty. So the council voted to get rid of the term. But the subject is still on the table.

It's important to understand some basics about clean -- uh, about the "money formerly known as clean." For one, it's not free. The money must come from somewhere, like a new tax. Also, it's voluntary. Candidates could still collect donations, but their opponents could get public funding to keep pace with such fundraising.

What about independent expenditures -- the bottomless reserves of money that special interests can pump into an election as long as they're not coordinated with a campaign? They would still exist. It's precisely these kind of expenditures that dominate discussions of campaign finance reform today -- and they are creatures of the spending limits imposed in the post-Watergate era. What's next?

Political money is a lot like toothpaste in a tube: You can screw on the cap tightly, but if you keep squeezing, the toothpaste will burst out the bottom. In the same way, special interest money will burst through the regulations and find its way to a candidate. New solutions will bring new problems. The question for voters, as they begin studying the details of the proposals, is whether trying to limit the power of political money is worth the effort.

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